I spent a good chunk of my early to mid-twenties studying and working abroad. I have worked with ESL teachers in their first year of their teaching abroad adventure. After I came back to the U.S., I worked with Chinese students coming here to study as well as American students embarking on their first trip abroad. I have sat through many pre-departure and first arrival orientation sessions, both as participant and organizer. I have read through the handouts on the cultural shock W-curve and recognizing the symptoms. I’ve led group work on how to combat this inevitable emotional roller coaster that people go through when they visit a new country for a long period of time. So in my mind, this beast has always been associated with going to a new country, and then when you come back to your home country, you’re faced with reverse culture shock.
So last year, when I came back to the U.S. with my husband, who was coming here for the first time, I felt fairly prepared to face these challenges. We spent about a year adjusting to life in the U.S.
He went through the stages of culture shock: “Wow, the environment is so nice here!” “Wait, what the hell is a dime?” “Americans are so fake. Why would you ask me how I was doing if you didn’t really want to know??” “I miss home!!” “Alright, I kind of get it now… That’s just your way of saying ‘hello’.”
And I dealt with reverse culture shock: “Yay! I’m home!” “Wait, what do you mean you don’t want to hear all my adventures in China?” “I miss China!! I want to go back!” “Alright, I kind of remember what it was like now.”
During the year, we made some plans for the near and far future and found somewhat of a routine. All the while, I was applying to jobs and hoping to land something full-time. Luckily, before the year ended, I was hired! YAY! Employment! Stability! Income! And in New York city, of all places! And in a field that fit my passion and experience! My husband was (and has continued to be) extremely supportive in my move out here without him. (Don’t worry, people, it’s all part of the plan.)
So I have been out here for 2 months now. In the beginning, I was a little nervous, but then I thought, “Heck! I survived China and I was nervous about opening my mouth and speaking the language when I first got there. This is NYC, USA, home turf and I speak the same language everyone here speaks. This nervousness is silly and I need to shut it down.” So I trekked forward. Started the job, met new colleagues, moved into an apartment, living with a roommate and basically, thrust into the life of an American, married, tax-paying/worrying, insured, bill-paying, still-paying-off-student-loans adult. I tried to focus as much of my energy and concentration as possible on the job. Because whether or not I can survive as the the adult just mentioned, it all depended on me doing well at this job and keeping it for as long as I can.
But lately, I have started feeling a little frustrated… and mopey… and a little shut down. For the slightest fleeting second, I even thought about moving back home. As excited as I was about the job, I feel like I am not catching up as fast as I can. It’s like catching sand that’s being thrown at you. Then add the American office environment, which is completely new to me. My previous jobs were literally action-packed. Meanwhile, learning to navigate this new city, figuring out where and how to do laundry, good/safe places to eat, and witnessing someone get taken down in a subway, all of it is compiling in my head. After work and on the weekends, all I want to do is turn my brain off and hide in my room.
Then the other day at work, the day after my husband got on his flight back to China to visit his parents, I was at my desk at my computer and I could feel myself wanting to cry. I could feel the pre-cry symptoms creeping up, my nostrils started to flare and my nose started sucking in more air. My eyes started moistening, but not yet to the point where tears were welling up. I thought to myself “What the hell is wrong with you? Nothing is even happening right now.” Then my mind started questioning whether this is the right job for me. This quiet, physically static office job was quite a contrast from teaching children and being a resident director, which demanded a lot of physical movement. Then that got me reminiscing back to my previous jobs, thinking back to my students over the past summer, traveling to China for the first time in their lives. Then it dawned on me: I was going through culture shock. Nobody ever warned me that you could go through culture shock when you’re in your home country. But perhaps in a country as large as the U.S. (and maybe especially in the U.S. since the people are so diverse), different regions exhibit extremely different cultural characteristics. East coast and west coast, north and south, urban and suburban and rural. And then there’s work-place culture, where there are also many different personalities and also a whole new language! There are words and acronyms specific to the field, the industry, the company, and/or the team. (The first time I heard the term CBAS, the first image that popped into my head was a fish – ‘sea bass’. Later I learned it’s the name of our financial reporting system.)
This shock on two levels was unexpected. It never occurred to me that I would go through these stages again while in my home country. Perhaps ‘culture’ shock is just the emotional stages of adjustment you go through when you’re suddenly put into any kind of new environment, in-country or out. And now that this realization has hit me, I feel hopeful that this blah feeling will pass… with time and some strategically placed effort.